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Human rights court awards damages & legal costs to British licensee wrongly charged with professional misconduct

In a June 22 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the United Kingdom to pay damages and legal costs of a social worker whom a family court judge wrongly accused of professional misconduct.

S.W. v. United Kingdom

The European Court of Human Rights, an international court based in Strasbourg, France, hears appeals of plaintiffs from countries, such as the United Kingdom, that have signed the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) after domestic remedies have been exhausted.

The social worker, S.W., had testified in Great Britain in child care proceedings concerning alleged sexual abuse of a group of siblings. After Britain’s Family Court rejected the allegations, the judge charged that the social worker had lied to the court and had subjected one of the children involved to emotional abuse. Those findings were ordered to be relayed to S.W.’s workplace and shared with professional bodies.

Appealing to Britain’s Court of Appeal, S.W. contended that the adverse findings came “out of the blue,” and the findings were highly damaging, yet she had been given no notice of them nor the opportunity to contest them.

The Court of Appeal found that the judgment was “manifestly unfair,” would breach her rights, and was serious and prejudicial enough to cause Article 8 of the Convention to come into play. The court then set aside the findings of the judge of the Family Court.

It is “first and foremost the responsibility of the presiding judge to ensure that the Article 8 rights of persons giving evidence are adequately protected,” the Court of Appeal said. The Family Court’s failure to notify an individual of a complaint against him before he was identified in a judgment “violated Article 8 of the Convention because the interference with the applicant’s private life was not accompanied by effective and adequate safeguards.”

On the issue of how to compensate S.W. for the Article 8 violations she had claimed, the Court of Appeal said it was unable to establish a causative link between the pecuniary losses claimed and violations found. In addition, to be compensated S.W. would have had to prove “bad faith” on the part of the judge who accused her of lying. (Under Britain’s Human Rights Act 1998, she was unable to claim damages for a judicial act done in good faith, unless detention or imprisonment were involved.)

S.W. next turned to the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg court agreed that the Family Court’s conduct was sufficiently serious and prejudicial to S.W. for Article 8 to come into play.

In response to the appeal, the British government argued that S.W. was no longer a victim, since the Court of Appeal had invalidated the adverse judicial findings and that was sufficient redress. The Strasbourg court, however, held that the Court of Appeal judgment “did not afford appropriate and sufficient redress of the applicant’s complaint.”

As to damages, though, the court said that it was unable to establish a causative link between the Family Court’s violations and the social worker’s claim for compensation (£40,000 in non-pecuniary damages and £1,057,406 in pecuniary damages, representing her loss of earnings and additional care and assistance she had required as a result of the violations)

Nevertheless, the Strasbourg court believed monetary compensation was warranted and S.W. was awarded £24,000 in non-pecuniary damages. The European Court of Human Rights ordered that the U.K. pay that amount to the social worker.

In an analysis of the international court’s ruling published in an online blog of LocalGovernmentLawyer, British barrister Charlotte Gilmartin commented, “The decision is an important illustration of the power of the European Court of Human Rights to ensure that an adequate remedy is available to those within its jurisdiction, notwithstanding domestic limitations.”